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VHF digital radio system get nod from emergency workers in county

Following a heated meeting last week, Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer said he will recommend the county purchase a VHF digital radio system, not a more expensive narrowband version many counties in the state have opted for.

And Homer regrets the decision has divided emergency responders who are split over purchasing an 800 megahertz system or the digital equipment as part of a mandated radio conversion that must be implemented by 2013.

His decision followed one by the five fire chiefs in Hubbard County, which voted the week before to purchase the ARMER 800 MHz program all state agencies are in the process of converting to. ARMER is the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response.

The decision followed two years of high-pressured sales pitches from state officials pushing the ARMER program and radio vendors pushing whatever equipment they sell.

Hubbard County commissioners attending the radio user group meetings have questioned whether a campaign of misinformation between the two camps was trying to discredit each other.

Commissioner Don Carlson said he doubted the county would purchase the ARMER system after a state official lobbied heavily for the county to align itself with the state agencies earlier this month.

But Carlson said it had to do more with money, not political pressure.

"We had another meeting without outside vendors for our user committee and we're going to make a commitment towards VHF," Homer said of last Thursday's meeting. "The fire chiefs were surprised. They thought that because they decided ARMER we would decide ARMER.

"We had a big brouhaha about the whole thing, which I found interesting because this was about how we were going to communicate no matter what system and yet it turned into, 'Why are you going that way?' It was an interesting meeting," he said.

Park Rapids Fire Chief Donn Hoffman has also been concerned about the tenor of the discussions.

"I'm not thinking anything right now," he said Monday. "I don't know where we're at. We're about at the end of our rope. Our grant period runs out Feb. 26 and I haven't heard from FEMA.

"The last meeting was pretty heated but I missed the worst part of it," he admitted.

The county's fire departments received a FEMA grant to purchase radio equipment under the theory they would buy the VHF program. Then they switched their allegiance when state officials said they could amend the grant.

Hoffman just wants to make sure the departments get their money and he worries that the last-minute change of heart could doom the grant altogether.

Hubbard County, unlike the remote fire departments, has few radio problems currently unless deputies get out of their cars and use their portable radios in rugged regions.

Communications went smoothly last week when Dep. Greg Swanstrom directed an air ambulance to the scene of a two-vehicle accident near Nevis, Homer said.

"I don't recall a life not being saved" because of lost radio communications, the sheriff said.

"First off, we're not in this game not to save lives. Secondly, I don't recall a life not being saved and to actually imagine that the system's going to be better than the system we have now and we haven't lost a life, what more can you ask for?"

The county stands to save an estimated $250,000 purchasing the VHF digital equipment, which is compatible with what it already owns.

If the fire departments stand by their decision to go with ARMER, a patch would be necessary, but the county could still communicate with firefighters.

"Like I said, 'Fellas, it's not a mortal sin if you're going ARMER,'" Homer said. "That's fine. All we need to concentrate on is how we're going to interoperate with each other and it's not gonna be that tough.

"There's this big fear out there and I don't understand it," he said. "It's gonna work and we'll have good communications."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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